Barber: A look at political donations of Bay Area sports figures

In the wake of the controversy involving Giants co-owner Charles B. Johnson and his contributions to the U.S. Senate campaign of tone-deaf jack-in-the-box Cindy Hyde-Smith, the team’s CEO sent out a press release. Larry Baer’s message came off as self-congratulatory. The release took a stand against unspecific hate speech, but mostly recapped the Giants’ efforts on behalf of social justice over the years.

Baer’s press release was corporate-speak. But I’m guessing that he was troubled, on a personal level, by Johnson’s right-wing allegiances. Because Larry Baer’s political contributions are also on the public record, and they look a lot different than Johnson’s.

Between 1999 and 2017, Baer contributed close to $20,000 to the campaigns of Bill Bradley, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, a nine-person All-Star lineup of liberal causes.

I know this because all of it is public information.

Even if you wear your political affiliations on your sleeve (I don’t mean literally; only Nazis do that), it still feels like a political contribution is a private act. It isn’t. Every gift of $50 or more is tabulated by the Federal Elections Commission and posted for all the world to see.

With Johnson’s $2,700 check to Hyde-Smith - who made a “public hanging” joke in, of all places, Mississippi, and who wore a Confederate hat at Jefferson Davis’ house in Biloxi, and who won re-election by nearly 70,000 votes on Tuesday - dominating the news cycle, I thought it might be interesting to see which other Bay Area sports figures had contributed to their favorite pols. The results were telling, if not scandalous.

One thing I learned is that athletes almost never make political contributions, at least not in a way that shows up in the official record. Well, I should make one exception. A number of NFL veterans - the list includes the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Staley and Richard Sherman, and the Raiders’ Derek Carr, Kelechi Osemele and Jared Cook - have given to the NFL Players Association’s One Team Political Action Committee (or PAC). Other than that, it was hard to find a prominent player who donated to a politician.

Coaches are only slightly more charitable. Jon Gruden, then an ESPN analyst, gave $600 to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in 2012, and wrote checks amounting to $2,500 for Republican George Allen’s bid for a Senate seat in Virginia. (Allen lost to Democrat Tim Kaine.) No surprise in that latter connection; Gruden’s right-hand man in Oakland and Tampa Bay was George’s brother, Bruce Allen.

On the Stanford campus, women’s basketball coach Tara Vanderveer contributed $2,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. David Shaw, the football coach, is a big supporter of Cory Booker; he gave $8,800 to the New Jersey senator in 2013. Shaw also sent $1,000 to Barack Obama in 2008.

The real spenders are in the front office. New Giants president Farhan Zaidi’s $1,000 to Democrat Russ Feingold in a Wisconsin Senate race didn’t ripple the waters much, nor did Raiders president Marc Badain’s $5,700 to Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat whose congressional district covers parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

But take a look at Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob, whose page on the elections commission site shows more than $86,000 in political contributions since 1997.

Lacob’s leanings are hard to pin down. He has donated to Democrats and to Republicans, to presidential hopefuls and little-known challengers for House seats. Lacob’s beneficiaries have included Joe Lieberman in 2004 and Barack Obama (a hefty $28,000 to the Obama Victory Fund) in 2008, but also the likes of Massachusetts Republican Christopher Gabrieli and California Republican Matt Fong, who ran against Senator Barbara Boxer in 1998. Lacob also has given $25,000 to the National Venture Capital Association, a lobbying group.

His Golden State partner, Peter Guber, racked up at least $38,300 in contributions, including $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000.

John York, co-chairman of the 49ers, is another equal-opportunity giver. York contributed to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999 and to Hillary Clinton’s in 2015. Other beneficiaries include Dianne Feinstein, California Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy and Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., York’s brother-in-law and his predecessor as 49ers owner, is another interesting case. DeBartolo is more or less a Democrat in California (where he has donated to Feinstein and Representative Ro Khanna) and Ohio (Tim Ryan and Loumano D’Apolito), and a Republican in Florida (Katherine Harris and the state’s Republican Party) and Montana (Conrad Burns and Albert Olszewski).

The king of deep pockets is A’s owner John Fisher. In 2014, he ranked No. 43 among all political donors in the United States. He fell to No. 144 by 2018, but that’s still baller territory. Fisher’s contributions over the past three election cycles totaled close to $1.5 million. He appears to favor center-leaning Republicans; he gave $25,000 each to Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. This year, Fisher was the top individual donor to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, bestowing $247,000 to the conservative’s re-election campaign.

Fisher has given money to Democrats, though, including Feinstein, Booker and California Congressman Ted Lieu.

One thing that jumps out right away from the FEC data is how much money sports executives send to their league’s political action committees. Baer has bestowed a total of $16,000 - $1,000 a year from 2002 to 2017 - upon the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball PAC. Lew Wolff gave $25,000 to that committee when he was A’s co-owner. The NFL equivalent is called Gridiron-PAC, and it, too, is a popular beneficiary. John York has gifted the PAC with a total of $35,000. His son (and 49ers CEO) Jed York has contributed $25,000, Badain $15,000 and Raiders team owner Mark Davis at least $10,000.

Just as you can see who is donating to the sports PACs, you can see where the money goes on the other end. And it’s bewildering. Gridiron-PAC gives money to dozens of politicians who range in ideology from lefty gadfly Maxine Waters to obsessive Benghazi conspiracy theorist Trey Gowdy.

“I can’t speak to the reasoning behind the contributions, because I’m not the one doing it, but at the risk of making a sports pun, my guess would be that they want to cover their bases,” I was told by Branden Quinn, outreach and social media manager at the Center for Responsive Politics. “A lot of times, corporate PACs are betting on incumbents. And incumbents have a high success rate. I think 91 percent of House incumbents won in the most recent election cycle.”

In other words, the sports PACs carpet-bomb likely winners with money, hoping their largesse is remembered the next time there is a vote on, say, antitrust legislation or head safety.

My journey through the FEC records was mostly an ever-scrolling list of names and numbers. But there were little pieces of humanity, too.

Amy Trask, the former Raiders CEO, is on the record for only a few political donations, including payments totaling $2,000 to George Allen in 1999 and 2000. What caught my eye were Trask’s Employer/Occupation columns. For her first two contributions, she left the fields blank. On her final payment, her employer is listed as THE RAIDERS. It’s the third listing, a $1,000 payment to California Democrat David Kanuth, that caught my eye. For both employer and occupation, Trask wrote “NOYB.” None of your business.

She’s probably right. But when the Federal Elections Commission puts the information right under your nose, it’s hard not to look.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or

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